Migrants disembark in Italy after rescue boat defies ban

AFP , Sunday 7 Jul 2019

Dozens of shipwrecked migrants disembarked in Italy early Sunday after their rescue boat docked on the island of Lampedusa, the second vessel in a week to defy efforts to stop them by far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.

Some 41 people were finally allowed to step off migrant rescue charity Mediterranea's Italian-flagged Alex, which arrived at the port on Saturday in an overnight operation that saw the ship temporarily seized by authorities.

The boat's captain Tommaso Stella is being investigated for allegedly aiding illegal immigration, according to the Italian news agency Agi.

It is the second vessel in just over a week to defy Salvini's attempts to block Italian ports to rescue ships, as tensions increase over the international response to the migration crisis.

A third boat that had also been waiting off Lampedusa, the German charity Sea-Eye's vessel Alan Kurdi carrying 65 migrants, was sailing towards Malta on Sunday, even though it has not received permission to enter Maltese waters.

The charity said it could not "wait until the state of emergency prevails" in a message on Twitter.

"Now it has to be proven whether the European governments stand by Italy's attitude. Human lives are not a bargaining chip," it added.

Salvini last month issued a decree that would bring fines of up to 50,000 euros ($57,000) for the captain, owner and operator of a vessel "entering Italian territorial waters without authorisation".

After the Alex reached port, the populist deputy prime minister said that he would raise the maximum fine to one million euros.

"I do not authorise any landing for those who couldn't care less about Italian laws and help the people smugglers," Salvini tweeted late Saturday.

Mediterranea said it had sailed to "the only possible safe port for landing", citing "intolerable hygiene conditions aboard" in a tweet Saturday.

Irresponsibility of European countries

Authorities on Lampedusa in late June seized a rescue ship belonging to German aid group Sea-Watch, which had forced its way into port with dozens of rescued migrants on board, and arrested its captain Carola Rackete.

An Italian judge subsequently ordered her freed, saying she had been acting to save lives, a decision which sparked Salvini's ire but may have encouraged the Alex crew.

Two other investigations, on charges of helping people smugglers and resisting the authorities are still under way after Rackete forced her way past Italian customs vessels.

"The irresponsibility of European countries obliged me to do what I did," Rackete said, in a message to the thousands of protesters who demonstrated in Germany on Saturday to support her.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer wrote a letter to Salvini asking him to rethink his policy, sources close to the German government said.

"We cannot be responsible for boats with people rescued from shipwrecks on board spending weeks on the Mediterranean because they can't find a port," Seehofer wrote.

Sea-Eye's ship Alan Kurdi is carrying migrants who were rescued when they encountered difficulties off Libya.

A spokesman for the Armed Forces of Malta said authorities were monitoring the ship on Sunday, stressing that the vessel had not been granted permission to enter Maltese waters.

Libya, which has been wracked by chaos since the 2011 uprising that killed dictator Moamer Kadhafi, has long been a major transit route for migrants, especially from sub-Saharan Africa, desperate to reach Europe.

On Tuesday night, 53 migrants were killed in an air strike on a detention centre in a Tripoli suburb.

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